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Driver Fatigue and Intercity Bus Crashes

Following a May 2011 highway bus crash in Virginia that left four dead and dozens injured, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) issued a report called “Sudden Death Overtime: A Common Sense Bus Safety Proposal.” The report looks at research into the causes of bus crashes and the working conditions that lead to accidents. The picture it paints is a grim one: lack of regulation, poor hiring and management practices, and a focus on profits before safety. As explained below, this issue also comes up in San Francisco, where driver health can affect their ability to safely operate a public transit vehicle.

ATU is the largest union representing public transit bus drivers, over-the-road bus drivers and school bus drivers. Safety is a critical issue for its members, just as it is for the bus-riding public. Bus drivers’ lives are on the line as well.

The Causes of Bus Crashes Are Known

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is charged with investigating transportation accidents to determine causes and to promote safety improvements. In its investigation of 16 fatal bus crashes from 1998 to 2008, the NTSB found:

  • Driver-related problems were the cause of 60 percent of fatal bus accidents.
  • Driver fatigue was responsible for 36 percent of bus crashes.
  • Driver medical problems were responsible for 18 percent of crashes.
  • Inattention was responsible for 6 percent of crashes.
  • Problems with the bus itself accounted for 20 percent of fatalities.
  • Road conditions accounted for 2 percent of bus accidents.

After every crash, there is talk about making buses more crashworthy. Legislation is being discussed right now (the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011, Senate bill 453 and House referendum 873) that would require seat belts and improved vehicle strength. But with the bus itself accounting for only 20 percent of accident fatalities, it makes more sense to look at safety improvements that would impact bus drivers – particularly bus driver fatigue. That’s the point the union report is making.

San Francisco MUNI’s Unlicensed Bus Drivers

In California, the operators of public transit vehicles are required to undergo regular physical examinations to ensure they are fit to drive. In San Francisco, according a recent Examiner article, MUNI requires its drivers to pass a physical at SFGH once every two years. If they don’t pass the physical, they are stripped of their commercial drivers’ licenses (though they can remain with MUNI as an employee for up to a year). According to the Examiner article, MUNI presently has 48 drivers who lack commercial drivers’ licenses and therefore cannot drive.

Operator health was a major issue in the MUNI light rail collision at West Portal Station. In that collision, the operator lost consciousness due to a heart condition and slammed his LRV into an LRV parked in front of him.

Driver Fatigue Is a Critical Factor

The NTSB posts its 10 Most Wanted list every year. Fatigue heads up this year’s list of safety concerns. It’s a problem not only for bus drivers, but also for truck drivers and mechanics, airline pilots and air traffic controllers. The NTSB proposes science-based hours-of-service limits, medical oversight systems to identify medical problems that could increase driver fatigue and treatment for those medical problems.

The union report identifies low pay as one reason for driver fatigue. In 1982, congressional deregulation allowed discount bus companies to enter the market. But the low cost to the consumer resulted in lower pay for drivers. Many drivers must work two or three jobs to make ends meet so even if they are driving only the hours allowed by law, they could still be fatigued.

The union report points out that drivers are paid only for time spent on the road. They are not paid for loading and unloading time, pre- and post-inspection time, and reporting time. If the time they spent on these work-related duties was factored into their pay – and considered in the work hour limits – bus drivers might be working fewer hours or making more money with overtime pay so they wouldn’t need extra jobs. But an unusual exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits bus drivers, loaders and mechanics from qualifying for overtime pay.

The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011 does not address the problems of low pay or fatigue. It begins to address problem bus companies. It would crack down on “chameleon operators” – bus companies that close down after a few accidents, only to reopen under another name. The bill would prohibit owners and co-owners from using ownership tactics to avoid compliance with safety regulations or to conceal their history of unsafe operation.

Holding bus company operators accountable for their safety records is a good start and eventually may improve working conditions for bus drivers. Cracking down on unethical bus companies will certainly make it easier for personal injury attorneys to hold them accountable in court. But in the meantime, bus riders will continue to be vulnerable to accidents caused by bus driver fatigue.

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